Dr. Phil analyzes life since Oprah
IRVING, Texas Phil McGraw usually spends his Tuesdays making women cry.
This is a guy who grew up "dirt poor," earned a football scholarship to the University of Tulsa, got his doctorate, specializing in neuropsychology, and built up a successful legal strategy business in Dallas. McGraw, 50, now flies to Chicago once a week to bark at people to "get real" about their lives.
And they love it.
"I greatly underestimated the power of television, and I greatly underestimated the power of Oprah's platform of television," says McGraw, sitting in the luxurious dark-wood office of his custom-built two-story home in a ritzy gated golf course community not far from downtown Dallas.
His first "Oprah" appearance was in April 1998. Then, in January 1999, his first book came out. Featuring advice like Life Law 1: "You either get it or you don't," "Life Strategies" has been perched on USA Today's Best-Selling Books list every week since.
He was such a hit with audiences that Winfrey soon gave him a regular
Tuesday slot on the show, addressing and admonishing adoring gluttons-for-punishment on everything from weight to guilt to breakup issues.
His marital counseling went over so well that his second book, "Relationship Rescue," also shot straight to the top of the USA Today list and has remained in the Top 150 since it came out in February 2000. It tackles all sorts of topics, including, of course, sex, with pronouncements like, "The bottom line to a good sexual relationship is to have sex, regularly and with quality."
Now, Dr. Phil has just signed a new four-book deal with Simon & Schuster, and there's talk of a spinoff TV show coming soon.
"You mix that with wife and kids, and I've got the best gig in America," he says.
Although already a financially successful, happily married father of two boys, McGraw readily admits Winfrey changed his life.
It happened during the talk-show host's big beef trial. McGraw, a courtroom strategist for 20 years and founder of Courtroom Sciences (with clients including Exxon, the New York Times and ABC), had been called in by Winfrey's attorneys to help plot a way for her to beat the cattlemen on their own turf. They were claiming that when Winfrey swore off hamburgers during an April 1996 show on mad cow disease, she cost them a large chunk of their livelihoods.
One night, well after midnight, with tears in her eyes and fuzzy slippers on her feet, Winfrey tapped on McGraw's door in the big Amarillo "Camp Oprah" house she and her crew had rented for the trial.
She was facing civil charges of fraud, slander, defamation and negligence, not to mention $100 million in damages. But beyond that, her integrity and ethics were being attacked, and that was even more painful. "Why is this happening to me"? Winfrey asked McGraw.
Finally, he took her hand and said, "Oprah, look at me, right now. You'd better wake up, girl, and wake up now. It is really happening. You'd better get over it and get in the game, or these good ol' boys are going to hand you your a-- on a platter."
She won the case, and a star was born. Her nickname for him: Dr. "Tell it like it is" Phil.
McGraw always has been interested in why people do what they do, he says. But he also is very competitive and likes things to be black or white. Although he was in private psychotherapy practice for 10 years, the grayness of one-on-one work drove him nuts.
"Somebody comes to you and says 'I'm depressed.' So you work with them for six months. Are they better or are they worse? Well, you didn't have a very accurate measure. It's not like you had a quart-and-a-half of depression and now it's down to a pint. It was very frustrating for me."
He began to look for other ways to use his degree. He ran a pain clinic, worked in corporate management training and, a pilot himself, did airline consulting.
Not for everybody
Because of his expertise on the brain and central nervous system, he was often called on to testify at court proceedings. He found he loved the scene.
"I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't draw a straight line, my penmanship is horrible, but what I can do is analyze things really fast, analyze people, situations. And so to go into the legal arena and do trial strategy ... what better job could you get for a guy like me than that?"
He started Courtroom Sciences, where mock trials run $30,000 a day. Business was booming, he says, when Winfrey dared him to take his straight talking to the air. Always one to rise to a challenge, he did it, and it has struck a chord, giving people what he describes as "wake-up calls."
Calls that regularly reduce them to tears?
"I think we laugh a lot. I think we cry a lot. I think we work a lot."
"Hey, I'm not for everybody," McGraw says. "People know me. They know what they're getting."
Actually, his wife, Robin, confirms that the real Dr. Phil is a softie.
"He seems tough on TV," she says, "but at home? Absolutely not."
"Sometimes he yells at the dog for barking it's so hilarious to me. But he hates conflict. He'll do anything he can to avoid it."
In fact, at home today, McGraw is subdued, sipping orange juice in the late morning. He good-naturedly grumbles about the live-in housekeeper's constant running of the vacuum cleaner.
He's clearly proud of the open fireplace by the pool, the view of the 17th-hole fairway and the den with large-screen television, pool table, pinball machine and saltwater fish tank. It's where Jay and 14-year-old brother Jordan hang out.
And McGraw smiles at his adorable wife, the petite, very much in-shape, friendly Robin. They've been married for 23 years. She has seen his rise to stardom firsthand and says, "No one deserves it more than Phillip."
She adds, "He is a workaholic. He thrives on it. And I support that."
Robin tells a story of him during their college days, demanding that dinner be served during a certain 20-minute time period. If it was not, he wouldn't eat it.
The secret to their marriage's endurance? "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that from Day One, you negotiate it," says Robin. "If I would get mad and pout, he would say to me, 'We're burning daylight here just tell me what's wrong.'"
McGraw says he has rearranged his priorities through the years. Less work, more family.
"When I was young, it was achievement stuff and money. A young lion. You want to conquer the world and make all the money and get all the accolades and get all the stuff.
"I'd like to think I've expanded my definition of success to not only include, but be dominated by, such things as family and peace."
His new book is on his mind. Tentatively titled "Self Matters," it's due out in January.
The talk of a spinoff syndicated daytime talk show starting this fall, he says, is "absolutely not true."
But, he says, "Will you see more of Dr. Phil in the future? Very possibly. What form that would take or when I don't know." But it will be with Oprah, of that he's sure.
"I've been offered television shows by the networks, independent syndicators, production companies. I get offers weekly. But I tell you what, when you've been driving a Rolls-Royce, it's hard to get excited about a clunker."